In view of the important role played by aircraft carriers in the Second Great War, it is a deplorable fact that, almost to the last, the Royal Navy found itself shorter of these ships than of those of any other category. Yet at the start it possessed five large carriers, H.M.S. Ark Royal, Furious, Courageous, Glorious and Eagle. Though only the first was really modern, all with the exception of the lastnamed had a speed of 30 knots or more. Unfortunately, the Courageous was lost while on anti-submarine patrol in the Western Approaches, a fortnight after war had been declared. (See pages 115-117, Vol. 1.) It is the view of many naval air specialists that this was a case of an exceptionally valuable ship being thrown away through being assigned to duty for which she was not suitable.
It might have been imagined that after this the utmost care would have been taken to provide adequate escort for any other large carrier likely to be exposed to unusual risk. Yet in June 1940 the Navy learned with surprise and dismay that H.M.S. Glorious, sister ship, of the Courageous, had been intercepted by a superior enemy force while returning from Norway practically unescorted. For six years the facts of the case remained obscure; but in May 1946 an official report was circulated to Parliament which for the first time gave details of this most unfortunate incident. In the first four weeks of the Norwegian campaign almost the whole of our naval strength in home waters was engaged in escorting and carrying troops to and from Norway. With such efficiency was this work done that not a single soldier out of the thousands transported lost his life as the result of submarine or surface ship attack, and very few from air attack at sea. But with the invasion of France on May 10, and the heavy demands of the Navy for help to that country, Belgium and the Netherlands, a sharp change came over the situation. With the evacuation of the British Army from Boulogne and Dunkirk, an exceptional strain was imposed on naval material, the majority of the available destroyers being either sunk or put out of action in these operations. Obviously, too, the threat of an enemy invasion attempt could not be ignored, imposing a further burden.
It was in these circumstances that plans had to be prepared for the evacuation of Northern Norway. It was arranged that the forces should sail in four groups, aggregating 13 large transports and a number of storeships. To escort these, the cruisers Southampton and Coventry, six destroyers. the repair ship Vindictive, a sloop and a number of trawlers were assigned. The Commander-in-Chief, Home Fleet, Admiral of the Feel Sir Charles Forbes, was asked by the Flag Officer, Narvik, Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery, if a covering force could be provided to escort the first group of six large ships. This was to assemble at a rendezvous some 210 miles to the west of Harstad, Norway, under the escort of the old Vindictive, and would be met by the battleship Valiant, which would escort it as far as the latitude of the Shetlands. The Valiant was to leave Scapa Flow at 21.00 on June 6, while the convoy would sail from Narvik very early the following day.
Glorious Sailed Independently
There were only four British capital ships in the northern waters at this time, the battleships Rodney and Valiant and the battle cruisers Renown and Repulse. The Rodney, flagship of the C.-in-C., was at Scapa, while the Renown and Repulse were at sea, having been ordered on June 7 to Iceland to guard against a possible German landing there. Shortly after midnight on June 7-8 the C.-in-C. was instructed by the Admiralty to have two capital ships available to proceed south in case of invasion, whereupon the Renown was ordered to return to Scapa.
Evacuation of the Narvik area was mainly carried out in two groups; but owing to the variey of vessels employed, it proved impossible to concentrate them all in a single body on either occasion, some ships having therefore to rely mainly on diversive routeing for their security. Despite these difficulties, the whole military force of 24,000 arrived safely in this country.
The aircraft carriers Ark Royal and Glorious had been sent to Narvik from Scapa on May 31, the former to provide fighter protection during the evacuation and the latter to bring back from North Norway much-needed Gladiator and Hurricane aircraft of the R.A.F. There seems to have been a misplaced assumption that the Germans lacked enterprise, presumably because for some months previously carriers and other heavy ships had been crossing the North Sea independently without incident. For this reason the Glorious was not allowed to accompany the second large group of ships returning, as her consort the Ark Royal did, but sailed independently. This unfortunate decision is understood to have been made on the grounds that otherwise the Glorious would not have had enough fuel left to get home.
Thus at 03.00 on June 8 the Glorious parted from the Ark Royal, which wore the flag of the Admiral (Air), in a position 17 degrees N. by 14 degrees 10 minutes E. She was accompanied by the destroyers Acasta and Ardent as an anti-submarine escort. Unfortunately she was sent tight into the jaws of the enemy.
No Reconnaissance Aircraft Up
An enemy squadron, comprising the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, ships of nearly 32,000 tons each, armed with nine 11-in. guns, and the cruiser Admiral Hipper, of nearly 15,000 tons with eight 8-in. guns, had left Kiel on June 4 and passed Bergen at midnight on June 5-6. Their orders were to attack British convoys proceeding from the Narvik area. No suspicion of their presence seems to have been entertained by British Naval Intelligence; at any rate, neither the Flag Officer, Narvik, nor the C.-in-C., Home Fleet, was aware of it.
At 8 on the morning of June 8 the Admiral Hipper encountered the tanker Oil Pioneer, which she sank, rescuing 11 survivors. A little later she did the same with the empty transport Orama and the trawler Juniper, picking up 112 from these ships. Though the British hospital ship Atlantis saw the Orama being shelled, the Geneva Convention precluded her reporting the fact by wireless. It may be doubted if our enemies would have acted so scrupulously in such a case.
Soon after 16.00 on the same day the Glorious sighted the two German battleships, the Admiral Hipper having put into Trondheim. No reconnaissance aircraft were up, nor had any been flown since parting from the Ark Royal, or the encounter might have been avoided. As it was, the Glorious did her best to escape to the southward under cover of a smoke-screen laid by the two destroyers. Though this caused the enemy to cease fire for a time, the forward upper hangar had already been hit, destroying the Hurricane aircraft and preventing any torpedoes being got out before the fire curtains were lowered. About an hour after the enemy ships had first been sighted, a salvo hit the bridge of the Glorious, and further heavy hits were sustained about 15 minutes later. Soon after this the order was given to abandon ship, and she sank with a heavy list to starboard about 17.40. The carrier's armament of 4.7-in. guns was, of course, quite useless against two such powerful adversaries.
Both the destroyers were sunk, the Acasta about 17.28 and the Ardent at 18.08. They had duly fired torpedoes, one from the Ardent hitting the Scharnhorst abreast of her after 11-in. turret, inflicting severe damage. As the result of this, the Scharnhorst made for Trondheim under escort of her sister ship, their cruise being abandoned. They took with them an officer and four ratings from the Glorious and one man from the Ardent as prisoner of war.
No intelligible report of the action was received by any British ship, though at 17.20 the cruiser Devonshire nearly 100 miles to the westward picked up the beginning of a wireless signal addressed to the Vice-Admiral (Air) from the Glorious; it must have been made as the ship was being abandoned. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Ark Royal, Southampton and Coventry, other ships in the North Sea were keeping wireless watch on a different wave frequency. This applied to the Valiant, which was then about 470 miles to the south-westward. On the morning of the following day that battleship made contact with the hospital ship Atlantis, which reported having seen a transport being attack by the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the heavy cruiser Hipper.
This information was at once passed to the Commander-in-Chief at Scapa, who sailed with the Rodney, Renown and six destroyers to cover the convoys. First news of the end of the Glorious came from an enemy broadcast on June 9. Though diligent search was made for survivors, aircraft from the Ark Royal actually passed close over a number of men on rafts without seeing them. Owing to the heavy sea, which capsized the Acasta's boats, and the extreme cold, men soon perished, the total death roll in the three ships amounting to 94 officers and 1,380 ratings, besides 41 R.A.F. personnel. The few who did survive were picked up by the little Norwegian steamer Borgund (341 tons gross), which landed them at Thorshavn, in the Faroe Islands.
Apart from the fact that aircraft carriers were extremely precious, the loss of the Glorious must be accounted a sad waste of the lives of brave men, most of them of high professional qualifications, not easily replaced. In the absence of any official statement on the subject, it must be left to future historians of the War, who presumably will have full access to all relevant documents, to award the blame, for the disaster, if any is due.